Fly Far, by Bob Connally

24 Nov

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn) is desperate to get through her senior year of high school as it begins in the fall of 2002. She wants nothing more than to escape the boredom of being a teenager in Sacramento and to fly away to college in New York. Maybe that’s why she insists that people (including her own mother) call her “Lady Bird.” Written and directed by Greta Gerwig (an actress long favored by Noah Baumbach), Lady Bird is as much if not more an exploration of the complicated dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship as it is a coming-of-age tale. It was hardly surprising to learn that Gerwig’s original title for the film was Mothers and Daughters.

Coming from a lower middle class family that she jokes is from “the wrong side of the tracks,” (though there are in fact train tracks involved), “Lady Bird” doesn’t connect with her Catholic education at school and she is regularly butting heads with her critical mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) at home. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) excels at Lady Bird’s worst subject, math, while she also lands the lead in the school’s fall musical, which Lady Bird can only get a small part in. Things look up for Lady Bird, however, when she hits it off with Danny (Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea) during play rehearsals and she starts to set her sights on applying for financial aid to universities in New York, a secret between Lady Bird and her more understanding father, Larry (Tracy Letts). Marion doesn’t want Lady Bird going to school any farther away than UC-Davis.

The tone of Lady Bird is a bit unusual and at times it can be difficult to tell where Gerwig is going for a laugh. Typically this would be a problem but it actually works here. There is a quirky awkwardness throughout much of the film that feels like real life instead of being manufactured for a movie. Often the moments that made me laugh the hardest were met with silence by others in the audience I saw it with, while some scenes got big laughs from others that just hit me as too real and painful for me to laugh at. Whatever responses different moments elicit from different members of its audience, Lady Bird is incredibly effective at engaging its audience. It is that sense of reality and honesty that is undeniable throughout the movie.

The lead character herself could have felt too much like a screenwriter’s creation but, thanks to Gerwig’s script and Ronan’s performance, Lady Bird is a decidedly believable teenage girl. Lady Bird is trying to reinvent herself from day to day, sometimes saying and doing things just for the sake of being edgy, which is of course classic teenage behavior. If the writing or performance had been different this could have made the character and ultimately the film insufferable. Thankfully though even if we might shake our heads at Lady Bird at times we can’t help but continue to root for her and stay on her side, because we know we’re shaking our heads at our teenage selves just a little bit. Her vulnerability and her inner strength are both present at every moment which is a real testament to Ronan’s wonderful work here.

Gerwig really does get a lot right about being a teenager who wants to leave a boring town and about going to Catholic school. I went to a Catholic elementary school from kindergarten through second grade in the late ‘80s which granted is not quite the same as a Catholic high school in the early aughts but still, the atmosphere feels just right. The faculty (which includes nuns and priests) is not as strict and humorless as one might think – no one gets wrapped on the knuckles with a ruler – and the kids are just normal kids. You wear a uniform and you say a prayer before the Pledge of Allegiance but math and English are still math and English and your classmates can be just as kind or as cruel as they are anyplace else. Gerwig and the ensemble cast bring Lady Bird’s school to terrifically realistic life.

What makes Lady Bird so special though beyond being a very good coming-of-age movie is its portrayal of the lead character’s relationship with her mother. The transition between being at each other’s throats to sharing excitement over a thrift store dress find is instantaneous. The scenes between Ronan and Metcalf are beautifully nuanced and incredibly genuine. Each will almost certainly garner well-deserved Actress and Supporting Actress Oscar nominations respectively. More than that however, these performances will leave a lasting mark on those who watch them.

Lady Bird is a gem of a movie and one of the best of 2017. Highly recommended.

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